Blondes Have More Controversy: A Few Notes on the FemShep Debacle

4 08 2011

Keeping to my proposed schedule of SDCC 2011 recaps clearly fell into the “epic fail” category.  Best laid plans, a gal’s gotta work/eat/finally watch Game of Thrones, etc. etc.  I will eventually roll out those posts as promised, but moving on to something more pressing for today…

It’s been a pretty exciting week for the diversification of geek culture icons.  Twitter has been (justifiably) all a-twitter with the news that the new Ultimate Spider-Man is a half-African American, half-Latino teen by the name of Miles Morales.  Most have celebrated writer Brian Michael Bendis’ decision (with an assist from the “Donald Glover for Spider-Man” campaign), while the Glenn Becks of the world reacted pretty much how everyone expected they would (with a mixture of racism, homophobia, and open disdain for comics and their readership).  I’m beyond thrilled that people are writing thoughtful and thought-provoking posts this week about race, comics, and the significance of this:

…but I’m not writing about it, at least not today.  Today I want to briefly respond to this:

Above is the winner (by popular facebook vote) of Bioware’s heavily critiqued “beauty pageant” to select a representative “FemShep” for Mass Effect 3‘s marketing campaign.  Full disclosure: I didn’t cast a vote, and I’m mostly coming to this story late by sifting through the online commentary/fallout from the contest.  I did wait on line for a couple of hours at Comic-Con so that Luke could get some demo time with Mass Effect 3.  Luke walked out filled with excitement about the narrative snippets he’d gleaned from playing (something about Krogan reproductive rights), and I walked out asking whether or not players could choose to experience the demo as FemShep.  I think…and someone please correct me if I’m wrong…that gender selection wasn’t an option for the demo when customizing your Shepard before gameplay, and all players used the default avatar in the demo.

The word “default” is what’s telling here, and why people are so invested in the representation of FemShep.  Not only has the male Shepard been the default centerpiece of Bioware’s marketing campaign, and serves as the in-game default for players, I would venture a guess that the image of the “default” gamer Bioware is marketing to is male.  So, not only did the promise of marketing materials featuring FemShep acknowledge female gamers in a way the industry rarely does, they also implicitly promised to market FemShep in a way that didn’t pander or play down to girl gamers.

To give you a sense of the other contenders for the public face of the female Shepard:

For the record, I'd pick the one with the appropriate military buzzcut.

I had a paradoxical gut response to the outcry over the selection of the blonde “FemShep5” (who, it should be noted, won by a landslide):

  • I understand why people (especially female gamers who love this franchise) are angry.  I’m not exactly thrilled that they felt compelled to put this to a popular vote, creating a stunt out of what should have been a commonsense decision to finally reflect in their promotions that this is (for many) the story of a woman, and I’m not thrilled that the most conventionally attractive/feminine option won in a landslide.
  • Though it wasn’t surprising, I was (as always) instinctively taken aback and a little disappointed by the instantaneous conflation of “blonde” and “bimbo.”  Penny Arcade took on this issue in their comic yesterday, and critiques of the vote have routinely reinforced this age-old connection between signifier/signified.

Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise has routinely been held up by students in my video game studies classes as a progressive example of gender neutral gaming.  They point to the customizable Lieutenant Commander Shepard as a sign that we’re finally moving beyond “girls’ games” and “boys’ games” to be given simply good games, with compelling narratives, and a protagonist designed for a wide range of players to identify with.  Moreover, a protagonist they’re encouraged to collaboratively design to help facilitate that identification.  If I had to venture a guess, the bulk of my students  and the bulk of those who choose to play Mass Effect with a female avatar don’t think about the character as “FemShep.”  She’s just Shepard, full stop.  And that, in and of itself, is heartening.

The default Shepards

That said, the controversy over the blonde Shepard, and the vote, is understandable.  For years, the Mass Effect marketing campaign has been built around the default male avatar, so it immediately prompts the question:  why wasn’t the default female avatar sufficient for this marketing push?  Why, when the female Shepard is finally being actively promoted, does she need a series of redesigns to fall in line with more conventional beauty standards?  And finally, what does this mean for the Mass Effect movie in development, and the scant hope of actual genderblind and colorblind casting policies?

Rawles over at The Border House puts it succinctly in their post on the subject:

Commander Shepard does not need to be a rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy. Bioware has just now taken tiny steps away from the rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy being the single, enduring image of Commander Shepard that they show to the world at large. It seems almost perverse, in light of that, to go charging right back towards that when it comes to something as high profile as a feature film that will introduce Mass Effect to millions of new people.

Right now I’m less concerned about the inevitable movie adaptation (call me cynical, but I think we’re probably stuck with a rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy), and more concerned about the marketing strategy for Mass Effect 3.

I’m hoping it’s this (with the fate of the world resting in HER hands):

And not this…

We only have to look back to the recent “Your mom hates this” campaign for Dead Space 2 to see that, particularly when it comes to the “masculine” genres of science fiction and horror, women continue to be framed as interlopers (at best) and prissy neophytes (at worst).  It’s easy for the video game industry to ghettoize women as “casual” gamers, or claim they’re catering to them by making a pink Nintendo DS, but I hope that Bioware does the smart, rather than the easy thing here.  FemShep is a blonde beauty, there’s not much to be done about that at this point (and speaking as a blonde, I feel compelled to note that this doesn’t necessarily preclude her from kicking ass).  How Bioware deploys her, and if those representations echo the franchise’s claim to promote a protagonist that defies gender typing, remains to be seen.

Stay tuned…and for now, we can all go back to being excited about Spidey.